Answer by Jonathan Rotenberg:
I knew both Bill Gates & Steve Jobs reasonably well back in the day. They are both extraordinary people who have made immeasurable contributions to advancing technology. Both have been profoundly inspiring to me personally throughout my life, each for very different reasons. (I knew Steve & Bill because I was founder & president of The Boston Computer Society, the world's largest personal computer user organization.)
While I have the deepest respect & admiration for Bill as a great person, I think he fully earned—and deserved—the mantle of Mega-Villain to personal computer users during the 11 years (1985-1996) that Steve was away from Apple. I don't believe this was because of any malice or villainous intention on Bill's part. But while Bill & Steve were both extraordinarily passionate about personal technology, they were each driven by very different underlying motivations.
Bill is an unbelievably brilliant engineer, capable of thinking through how to make unimaginably complex systems work better. He is also the most intensely competitive person I have ever known. (Not necessarily in a bad way; just staggeringly intense.) Microsoft's mission was never to make technology with deep empathy for nontechnical users or to help advance humanity. It was "A computer on every desk running Microsoft software." The mission was, unapologetically, world domination. And Microsoft achieved its mission by the mid-1990s.
However, from its founding, virtually every success that Microsoft ever had came from taking someone else's product, making very minor improvements to it—and then driving relentlessly and ceaselessly until it owns the market for that product. From the outset: Microsft BASIC was a knockoff of Dartmouth BASIC, which had been invented for minicomputers; MS BASIC added almost nothing new and became the dominant BASIC for microcomputers. MS-DOS was a slightly-improved 16-bit version of the 8-bit CP/M DOS; it did nothing to advance the paradigm of microcomputer operating systems for end users. Similarly, MS Windows did nothing to advance the breakthrough work of Xerox PARC or the vast innovation that Apple had done on GUIs; Windows was just enough of a copy of Mac OS to meet Microsoft's requirement for market domination. Microsoft did the same with applications, crushing 1-2-3 with Excel and WordPerfect with Word.
Consider Microsoft's failures as well. Remember how bad the original Windows Phone and Tablet were? In both cases, MS took the clumsy Windows OS & ported it (with minor changes) onto mobile hardware.
Microsoft has always been a textbook example of a "market-driven" company. From its founding, Microsoft has copied other peoples' products wholesale and made them only marginally good enough to beat competitors and dominate markets. In my view, Microsoft has never had a moral compass for truly serving the end user or stewardship for how personal technology affects society. Microsoft tacitly accepted the competitive marketplace as the moral force for protecting end users. Throughout the late 80s & early 90s, this made for buggy Microsoft products that crashed regularly; screen real estate sold off to the highest bidders (no matter the impact on the end user); applications overrun with 10x more features than anyone could use and horrible integration, just to preempt competitors; and creating insidious, run-away after-markets for antivirus software, disk defragmentation and endless other utilities that required end-users to become nearly full-time computer technicians. Microsoft was always shamelessly unapologetic about this. For example, the company to this day has still NEVER bothered to make Microsft Outlook for the Mac compatible with the Mac's own internal Address Book or Calendar—which virtually all Mac users depend upon. Users who paid $169 to buy Mac Outlook can provide feedback to Microsoft on these serious problems inside the application. However, before a user can submit any feedback or product bugs, s/he MUST agree to one key stipulation: That Microsoft WILL NOT respond to ANY user feedback or offer any follow-through. Since thousands of Mac users have given the same feedback to the company for 5 years, Microsoft has made crystal clear that it's a waste of time for anyone to provide feedback—because Microsoft will never acknowledge it or act on it.
By 1995, the personal computer world had become a wilderness of innovation—with so many bad, deeply entrenched, massively fortified Microsoft paradigms controlling most of the technologies that affect end users, No one in the industry had anywhere near the market power or scale needed to change paradigms or to introduce survivable new standards. I think Microsoft (and Bill by extension) had earned the reputation of being an all-powerful villain to nontechnical end users.
The late 90s and early 2000s is where I believe it became clear why Steve Jobs was such a hero for everyone who wants technology to serve them—and not the other way around. Steve's most deeply held and unstinting commitment was to make technology disappear so that users could focus 100% on benefitting from the technology. If any aspect of an Apple product did not serve end users, Steve felt a deep moral obligation to address it—no matter the cost or what any competitor did or thought. If you need any evidence of how much of a hero Steve was to end users, consider how many of Microsoft's entrenched paradigms were blown up by Steve at Apple and completely rethought with approaches that were not just incrementally better—but orders of magnitude better. I have always trusted Aple to do the right thing for end users. While Apple hasn't always done the right things in the short run, it has been meticulously impeccable over time. I believe Microsoft has never had this in its DNA. It never seemed to have problem putting out products that are bad for end users, as long as those products win in the competitive marketplace.
With no disrespect to Bill—whom I believe is a deeply principled and ethical person—I do believe he rightfully became known as the villain to all nontechnical users. I don't believe this was his intention. I see Steve as someone who was a spectacularly courageous and tireless hero for nontechnical users.
Imagine if Steve had never come back to Apple. Fast forward from 1995 to where Microsoft was taking everyone. Where would we be today?